Tips on Researching pre-20th C. Yalies

On Wednesday morning, April 10th, Yale alumnus David Richards (1967 B.A., 1972 J.D.) made a presentation to Manuscripts and Archives staff on research he’s been conducting into the impact of Senior (aka secret) societies on Yale’s administration and governance. He offered some very useful tips for researching Yale students and student life for the period before the growth of student publications at Yale during the last quarter of the 19th century. Links from items discussed below to freely available digital copies in Google Books are provided when they exist.

  1. Read Four Years at Yale (New Haven: Charles C. Chatfield & Co., 1871) by Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg (1869 B.A.). According to Richards this is the most comprehensive record of the annual cycle of student life at Yale in the mid-19th century.
  2. Browse the lists of members in fraternity catalogs for Phi Beta Kappa (1898 catalog link provided), and the Yale Junior fraternities Alpha Delta Phi (1909 catalog link provided), Psi Upsilon (1902 catalog link provided), and Delta Kappa Epsilon (1910 catalog link provided), many editions of which have been digitized and are available in Google Books. These contain a surprising amount of data about individual students and cover significant percentages of Yale classes, especially during the 19th-century time period. For example, according to Richards’ calculations, out of the 110 members of the Yale College Class of 1853, information about 74 students can be found in the three Junior fraternity catalogs.
  3. Explore Anson Phelps Stokes’ Memorials of Eminent Yale Men: A Biographical Study of Student Life and University Influences During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914). These biographies of the more famous co-graduates of a particular class provide a good flavor of student life during the time period and glimpses of other members of the class. Other single-subject biographies can serve the same purpose in establishing context for understanding the life of a student in a specific Yale College class or era, for example, John A. Garver’s John William Sterling, Class of 1864, Yale College: A Biographical Sketch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929).

In our alumni-related reference work in Manuscripts and Archives we rely heavily on student publications and class books, which did not come into routine existence until late in the 19th century. Richards’ research reminds us all of the potential of other resources for researching Yalies of an earlier era.

William Howard Taft

See the interesting blog post attached below, recently from the Yale Alumni Magazine’s “This Just In” blog. The post discusses former president Taft’s consideration, and reasons for not wanting to accept, the position of president of Yale University. There are a number of different historical resources related to this article at Manuscripts and Archives, including the class books the Class of 1878, Skull and Bones membership lists that include Taft, as well as photos and records from commencement and other events attended by Taft.


When Taft turned Yale down

  • Former Yale President Timothy Dwight (the younger), United States President William Howard Taft, and Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley.
    President Taft, then a Yale trustee, at Commencement in 1911 with former Yale president Timothy Dwight (left) and then Yale president Arthur Twining Hadley. Photo: Manuscripts and Archives.

At about this time 100 years ago, William Howard Taft (Yale Class of 1878) had just left the White House and was taking a short vacation before starting a new job: professor of constitutional law at Yale. But as I learned while writing a short piece for our new issue about the chairs Taft sat in during his professorship, Taft had earlier been considered for another job at Yale. And his reason for not taking it tells you how much times have changed.

When Yale president Timothy Dwight left office in 1899, Taft’s friends urged the Yale Corporation to consider him for the job. At age 42, Taft was then a federal judge and former US solicitor general; he was also serving as dean of the University of Cincinnati law school. A sympathetic Taft biographer says that he modestly declined because he did not feel he had enough experience in higher education. But Taft had a more interesting reason not to pursue the job: in 1899, Yale was still moored, if loosely, to its Congregationalist roots, and every president to that date had been an ordained minister. Taft saw this as a problem, as he wrote in a letter to his brother Henry:

It would shock the large conservative element of those who give Yale her power and influence in the country to see one chosen to the Presidency who could not subscribe to the creed of the orthodox Congregational Church of New England . . . I am a Unitarian.  I believe in God.  I do not believe in the Divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.  I am not, however, a scoffer at religion but on the contrary recognize, in the fullest manner, the elevating influence that it has had and always will have in the history of mankind.”

Taft’s religious beliefs were not a major issue, though, when he ran for president of the United States in 1908. Today, Yale’s second Jewish president is preparing to take office. But how would a candidate who didn’t “believe in the Divinity of Christ” fare in a race for president of the US today?

Yale Alumni Magazine | Blogs.

Yale University Presidents

Recently, Provost Peter Salovey was announced as the University’s next president, succeeding Richard C. Levin, effective June 30, 2013.  For more information, follow the links below:

Yale Presidents Throughout History

Watch this recent video interview of Judith Schiff, Chief Research Archivist in Manuscripts and Archives, discussing Yale University Presidents through the years:

Researching Yale Presidents in Manuscripts and Archives

Manuscripts and Archives holds a wealth of historical information and documentation of Yale presidents through the years. Examples of the types of materials that can be found include: